Yacht Fathom - Setting off from England in May 2016 on a single-handed voyage somewhere a bit warmer

Archive for the “Panama Canal” Category

Panama Canal

We had been instructed to depart the marina at Shelter Bay by 13.00 on the 8th March and proceed to the flats anchorage to await the advisor who would board at 15.00. Fathom felt very sluggish with the four line handlers onboard, Anne and Jim, Jose and Jaime and the heavy fenders and warps. As expected, there was a delay and the advisor, Francisco, didn’t board until 17.00. Fathom was one of three yachts transiting through Gatun locks during the afternoon, the other two being a 40 foot Dutch catamaran and an American 55 foot Beneteau called Zatara. The advisor explained that Zatara would be the middle boat with the cat rafted on her portside and Fathom on her starboard side. As Fathom was small Zatara would handle the bow and stern warps to the starboard lock wall and the catamaran the port side warps. An easy ride for us.

Fathom enters Miraflores lock

The three locks on the Atlantic side of the canal are collectively known as the Gatun locks. They raise a vessel a total of 26m in three separate chambers. Each chamber is 33.53m wide and 304.8m long. Before entering the first chamber the three yachts rafted alongside each other without issue and Zatara used her engine to move the raft into the lock behind a general cargo ship that had gone in first.  Once past the open lock gate monkey fists at the end of a thin line were thrown from the lock wall and attached to the warps onboard the yachts.  Everything was running smoothly until the three yacht raft was approaching the third chamber and we noticed the lock gates were shutting in front of us. Panic stations! All three yachts hard in reverse. Luckily we managed to stop in time but it could have been a disaster. All three advisors said that in their many years of working in the canal they had never seen the lock gates begin to close before all vessels had entered. The advisor does not stay onboard overnight but does require feeding. I had prepared a sausage and sweet potato stew in the thermal cooker that morning so it was all ready. After he had finished his plate he came back up to the cockpit and said “who is the cook?” I replied it was me and he looked mighty surprised before saying “that dinner was ten outta ten!!”.

Once clear of the third chamber we separated from the raft and proceeded into Gatun lake where we tied alongside Zatara for the night, who were alongside a buoy. The advisor was picked up and the rest of us settled down in the cockpit for dinner and some cold beers. It was rather cosy overnight with five sleeping in the cabin. I squeezed myself alongside the liferaft on the quarter berth and the others slept on the port and starboard bunks and two pipe cots. Not only was the cabin an oven there was a snorer onboard!

The next morning a new advisor, Freddy, boarded at 08.30, he should have arrived at 07.00. The three yachts set off across Gatun lake towards the locks at the other end, a journey of about 30 nautical miles or five and a half hours. The lake is completely man made and has an area of 166.64 square miles. Fathom was barely afloat with six people onboard, various bits of temporary luggage and being in fresh water the waterline was even lower. We still managed to make between 5 and 5.5 knots which is what I had stated to the authorities we could achieve. Despite this, the other yachts disappeared into the distance and we later learnt they had made an earlier lock and we would have to wait for a much later lock and go through alone in centre chamber configuration. This would mean that unlike the easy ride we had in the Gatun locks we would now be required to do all four warps ourselves.

After passing through the Galliard Cut, a passage carved through rock and shale, we reached Pedro Miguel Lock but had to wait a couple of hours for a slot so tied up alongside an unused lock wall to wait in the baking sun. Freddy explained we would go through with a tug and barge, rather appropriate I thought after spending many years working with these kind of ‘vessels’. In the meantime we watched, with a mix of surprise and amusement, a huge container ship moving into the lock. Despite over USD 5 billion worth of improvements to the canal it still took two blokes in a small rowing boat to attach the dock rope to the ship. Eventually we moved and proceeded into the lock. Four monkey fists were thrown down and each of the four lines attached. The line handlers on the lock wall then hauled in the ropes and make fast on bollards when we were in position. The warps were eased as the water level dropped 9m. No dramas and once through we were disconnected from the shore lines and motored along the artificial Miraflores lake to the Miraflores locks where we were again connected to the lock with our four lines as before. I had primed friends and family to watch the webcam at Miraflores and grab a screen shot for old times sake.

The last chamber is often the worst because there are various eddies and currents where the fresh and salt water meet. But it was fine for us and Fathom was lowered back to sea level without drama. It was a special and unique feeling when the last lock gate opened and, at last, Fathom was in the Pacific Ocean! Thanks to all four line handlers for your excellent work. It really feels like Fathom and I have come along way from Yarmouth. A whole new adventure awaits, more in the next post before setting sail once again.

Posted on 12 Mar in: Panama Canal

Shelter Bay & Canal Preperations

On arrival at Shelter Bay marina on the 24th February I was informed that there was a 5-day carnival celebration about to happen in Panama and most of the country would grind to a halt. The Panama Canal never stops but the official admeasurers, who visit yachts before a transit date is given, were short staffed and this caused several days delay. Thankfully the items ordered from the US were waiting for me including two new Genoa cars and a couple of cruising guides for the Pacific.

There is an active community of yachties at Shelter Bay, a mix between those only around for a few days before transiting and those who live onboard permanently. A different event is run every evening ranging from open mic night on Fridays to movie night on Thursdays, all good fun.  As the marina is quite isolated a free bus runs once or twice a day to a big shopping centre near Colon and I made use of this several times to start building up stores for the Pacific. It was good to catch up with some familiar faces including French couple Victor and Julie who I had last seen at the bar in Cape Verde the evening before we all set off across the Atlantic. A notable visitor to the marina while I was there was Dee Caffari who was waiting to transit the canal on a swanky multihull.


I had decided to appoint an agent for the canal transit, Erick Galvez, who came highly recommended from other cruisers. Erick made life very easy and was always quick to respond to any questions I had. His services included dealing directly with canal authority, providing the mandatory eight large fenders and four 125 foot lines, handling the money transfers (no need for me to take several trips to banks in Colon), booking the measurer, providing line handlers (for a fee), avoiding the requirement for an 800 USD deposit and providing the exit zarpe for Panama. Eventually on the 28th, Fathom was visited by the canal official, the boat measured and later that day we were given a transit date of 8th March. I had to tell a white lie that Fathom had a holding tank to avoid the need to have a portable toilet onboard.

A requirement for going through the canal on a yacht is that in addition to the skipper, four line handlers are needed. I had quite a bit of trouble finding four because many yachts were scheduled to go through around the same time and people had already been snapped up. I posted a notice in the marina office and one afternoon was visited by Anne and Jim who had been crewing on an Oyster as part of the Oyster World Rally. Couldn’t quite believe they were happy to downsize from a luxury 55 footer to little Fathom but they agreed to come along. I couldn’t find anyone else so had to stump up some more cash and pay for two professional line handlers provided by Erick. On the 2nd & 3rd March I joined yacht ‘Little Dove’ as linehandler for their canal transit to gain some experience which was very worthwhile.

For anyone interested in the costs of going through the canal it isn’t cheap! Here goes:-

Transit tolls $800.00 ( 50 ft and under)  or $1,300.00 ( over 50 ft and under 80 ft)
Transit inspection $54.00
Transit Security fee $130.00
Fenders & lines rental $75.00
Bank charges $60.00
Agent service Fee $350.00
Professional line handlers $100.00 each
Check out fee $35.00
TOTAL COST $1704.00

Info and photos on Fathom’s canal transit in the next post.

Posted on 12 Mar in: Panama Canal

Back to top